Christopher Diaz: One of 10 in the search for Puerto Rico’s next boxing star
As Miguel Cotto contently walks away from boxing, into a well-deserved retirement, Puerto Rico goes in search of a boxer to sustain its fantastic fistic legacy. A savior always seems to appear, as if by providence, in the nick of time to take the torch as Cotto did from Felix Trinidad. Many are heaping this burden of expectations upon Felix Verdejo. While he is the most obvious choice, there are others who could emerge to steal the spotlight, although, at first glance, the talent pool does not seem as deep or exciting as in the past. One who wants to state his case is undefeated Christopher Diaz, who opens the highly anticipated Vasyl Lomachenko-Guillermo Rigondeaux ESPN card (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) on Saturday. An exciting performance by Diaz would go a long way to alleviate fears and give inspiration to a beleaguered island in search of positive distractions.
So let’s take a look at Diaz and nine other boxers who will vie for the affections of their countrymen over the next couple years.
10. Jeyvier Cintron, 2-0 (1) – A pick that is a long way from maturation but the twice-decorated Olympian (the only Puerto Rican boxer to ever compete in two Olympics) is sure to be fast-tracked by Top Rank, who signed the 22-year-old nascent star in February. Cintron had an outstanding 230-10 record in the unpaid ranks but also failed to deliver at crucial moments, making him a bit like American Olympian Rau’shee Warren. The scythe southpaw may be handicapped in the American boxing market, since Cintron will be looking for a title shot at bantamweight. Not a traditional market into which HBO and Showtime heavily tip their financial interests. Is still trained by his father, like Trinidad, in that regard, who picked Top Rank because Cintron Sr. believes his career was not guided correctly, “I was a boxer and I can talk about the importance of having a good company that helps to develop the career of athletes and Jeyvier is now with Top Rank, and we are thankful for that.” The fistic tools and promotional backing are in place; now the mercurial Cintron has to deliver on his promise.
9. Jean Carlos Rivera, 13-0 (8) – As a nickname of “Chapito” indicates, the Bayamon native is a high-class puncher-boxer…yes, in that order. The 5-foot-7 junior featherweight was given that nickname by his mentor Alex Lopez; he worked and sparred with Edwin Rosario in his youth, who has trained Rivera since he was 11. Lopez said of his protégé, “Jean is similar to Rosario – he can box and he can crack with both hands. He’s a natural-born puncher, just like ‘Chapo’ was.” Rivera has finally upped his activity; a three-year pro, he is fighting four times a year now but has only gone eight rounds to date. Showed some late power though, having scored a sixth round stoppage over Heriberto Delgado, but his level of opposition has been below-average. When asked to describe his style, Rivera said, “I’m more of an old-style Puerto Rican fighter. I move and use angles but I switch up if I have to – if the fight is toe-to-toe, I’ll fight toe-to-toe. I do whatever I have to do to win but mostly I’m a boxer.”
8. Alfredo Santiago, 8-0 (2) – I hesitated on this selection, as the whip-fast Santiago was born in the Dominican Republic, and his parents moved to Puerto Rico, while Santiago was a pre-teen. Was pretty much raised in and boxes exclusively out of Puerto Rico, with the fledgling Fresh Promotions outfit handling his career. In only his seventh fight, defeated former world title challenger Jayson Velez, using his speed and deft feet to outmaneuver a more experienced foe. Santiago lacks the punching power many associate with Puerto Rican boxers but his cracking stream of punches draw the eye and are cause for excitement, a bit like Ivan Calderon in that way. In Santiago’s most recent outing, he showed handling a pure boxer is no problem, easily outpointing former Mexican Olympian Arturo Reyes, only losing one round on every card. Since last year, the ambitious 22-year-old has upped the level of his opposition, so it is a great sign that the one-sided results have continued to flow.
7. Subriel Matthews, 8-0 (8) – Undefeated knockout artist is the closest to a “Trinidad type” on this list, as he really seems to relish and seek a back-and-forth battle. Displayed a lot of maturity and focus, stopping well-rounded but also badly faded Patrick Lopez in his most recent outing. Until we can determine the strength of Matthews’ chin, we won’t be able to tell if his want for a firefight will be detrimental but there is no doubt Matthews relishes any opportunity to unleash his power. Did not have a great amateur career, ending at around 35-12, but Matthews’ one-punch style was not suited for the amateurs. Uses his quickness to set up hooks but at the cost of a consistent jab that will come with more seasoning. Matthews’ bursts catch the imagination but, at this time, are not supported by the fundamentals. He can get away with that, at this level, but Matthews’ future depends on building upon that explosive foundation and not relying on power alone.
6. Angel Acosta, 17-1 (17) – I remain positive on Acosta’s future, who recently rebounded with a win after suffering his first defeat in a road title challenge against Japanese prodigy Kosei Tanaka. The lanky bomber always gives himself an opportunity with stinging power, as all of his victories are via knockout. My expectation is that Acosta’s failed title fight will mature and ultimately better him. Showed plenty of heart, going the distance for the first time, but Acosta was not able to get back into the fight after suffering a fifth round uppercut knockdown. Is already 27-years-old, so Acosta will not need a lot more fights before challenging for a title again. Given his admirable challenge, another title shot for Acosta seems in order. Should benefit from the retirement of Miguel Cotto, since Acosta is part of Cotto Promotions, and the former champ can now spend more time working as a promoter.
5. Jose Martinez, 20-0-1 (13) – In his most recent fight, exhibited real hunger and mental strength, traveling to Mexico and scoring a fourth round knockout over solid Colombian southpaw Jesus Martinez. Unlike a lot of boxers, did not come from a large city or escape a violent childhood but was a poor son of a farmer. As with many Puerto Ricans, was inspired to box by Felix Trinidad, who remains his boxing hero, and Martinez molds his style after him. Like Trinidad, Martinez showed maturity, rising from a hard knockdown to score a stoppage defeat of Juan Herrera in his 14th outing. The only blemish is a majority decision draw, that the 25-year-old emphatically states was a bad decision against him. A smart boxer, Martinez will work any advantage, as he did in Mexico, continually hammering the body when his foe was felled early by a shot to the ribs. Dispatched of Juan Palacios with ease, not daunted by the prospect taking control in the opening round and never relenting. Does lack a bit of charisma but is solid in every aspect and a dangerous challenger, given his mentality of taking advantage of every given opportunity.
4. Christopher Diaz, 21-0 (13) – Rightly labeled an action fighter but, unlike a lot of Puerto Rican fan favorites, Diaz’s type of action is based on volume instead of pure power. Thrives off hard work, in and out of the ring, as he is recovering from a hand injury, which is paying dividends, since he may only be a victory or two away from a title shot. The featherweight reminds me a bit of former lightweight champion Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz but with more ability to work off the back foot and less dependent on using a thick upper body to bully foes off balance. The 23-year-old’s best win came against fellow undefeated prospect Ray Ximenez, who Diaz consistently forced into retreat with harder and more accurate punches. Needs to face a slick mover before final judgment can be made but, to date, Diaz has dealt well with all styles. Diaz says of himself, “The fans like aggressive fighters and that’s what I do. I move forward but I can box too. For every fight, I come ready. The fans pay to see the fights and I appreciate that. I come to fight. I give a great show to the fans; that’s my job. I fight for me but I fight for the fans too.”
3. Emmanuel Rodriguez, 17-0 (12) – As easy as Rodriguez makes things look in the ring, it has not been a smooth or straight shot to the top. Was a favorite to win Olympic gold by many but, in 2010, his amateur dreams (171-11 in the unpaid ranks) were dashed in a car accident that saw him badly injured, “I suffered second degree burns on 66 percent of my body. My life was in danger and my boxing career too but that was more motivation. My hands were so burnt that I could not move them as I prefer to but now I’m 100 percent.” Mature and patient away from the ring, Rodriguez has been the opposite, inside the ropes, as a rampant and threatening 25-year-old in his physical prime. Simply has the look and feel of a future champion, quickly climbing the sanctioning body ratings, thanks to scintillating wins and an imposing 5-foot-6 frame. Compelling is, as his level of opposition has increased, that Rodriguez has stopped seven of his last eight opponents, showing raised concentration, risk-taking and ambition. Perhaps unusually, he has been doing this by countering opponents’ mistakes, instead of always leading, like many prospects, using quick hands that unfurl like a snake striking outward. When it comes to learning instead of teaching, Rodriguez said he gained immeasurable experience and confidence routinely sparring with tricky former two-division world champion Ivan Calderon.
2. Alberto Machado, 19-0 (16) – The latest to add his name to the roster of Puerto Rican champions, and “El Explosivo” did it in a dramatic fashion to match his nickname. Machado dedicated the inspirational come-from-behind knockout victory, over rugged mauler Jezreel Corrales, to an island nation still suffering from the aftereffects of Hurricane Irma. The way Machado arose from a knockdown was a reflection of the Puerto Rican people’s spirit. At the beginning of the year, I picked Machado to win a title, going with the rangy (5-foot-10 with 72-inch-reach) Puerto Rican power-puncher, despite his not being properly tested before facing Corrales. Machado, a natural right-hander, fights from a southpaw stance and started boxing at age 10, inspired by watching his current promoter Miguel Cotto. Drew a passionate crowd in his first headlining bout before winning the title, which should be all the bigger after his dramatic title win. It may not be a lengthy reign Machado enjoys but, like an Edwin Rosario, it will be filled with memorable moments and probably rising from the ashes, after being written off. I prefer Machado to Verdejo on an intrinsic level, as he brings more passion to play, even though he is not nearly as skilled as Verdejo.
1. Felix Verdejo, 23-0 (15) – As thrilling as Felix Trinidad? The next Wilfredo Gomez? Maybe “only” the next Miguel Cotto? That is the burden with which Verdejo enters a ring, as the brightest star in the Puerto Rican boxing constellation. Has handled the lofty expectations and attention that comes with that pressure, flashing fast fists and sincere smiles, in equal portions, to adoring audiences. Is accruing skeptics of late; after a couple prosaic efforts, some claim he has gotten lackadaisical. Then there is his motorcycle accident, which points toward a lack of maturity, as well. The 24-year-old, voted ESPN’s “2014 Boxing Prospect of the Year,” started boxing at age nine and grew up in the tough streets of the capital city of San Juan. Is confident but without crossing the line to cocky. Represented Puerto Rico in the 2012 Olympics, had an amateur record of 106-17, but had the misfortune of being drawn into the same bracket as eventual Olympic gold medalist Vasyl Lomachenko. Top Rank remained sure of Verdejo’s pro potential and was willing to invest heavily, reportedly enticing the blue-chip prospect with a $600,000 signing bonus. They saw what many others did: An aptly nicknamed “El Diamante,” using his elongated frame (standing 5-foot-9 with a 72-inch reach) to cut open defenses with straight and precise punches. Those punches are more of the stunning than straight KO variety but when Verdejo hurts an opponent, he hunts him down with follow-up flurries that end emphatically.